On a Saturday morning in early December, the 32nd day of America's election stalemate, a hand recount of tens of thousands of ballots began across Florida. Al Gore expected it would win him the presidency. If not, he was prepared to concede.
About 3 p.m., as local officials eyeballed the ballots over the objections of George W. Bush, a stunning order arrived in Tallahassee by fax from Washington: Stop counting immediately.
Since that moment when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the statewide recount, there has been a lingering question about the historic 2000 election. It is not a question of the legitimacy of the president, or of the peculiarities of the Electoral College, or whether fraud tainted the outcome. The unanswered question for a year has been this:
If the recounts had proceeded, who would have won the presidency?
The answer is Bush.
The Republican would have won the statewide recount he desperately and successfully battled to stop by 493 votes, according to a study commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times and other media outlets.
The unprecedented study of ballots that were cast but not counted offers Gore a frustrating point of consolation. More Florida voters clearly intended to vote for him than Bush. But their intentions were thwarted by imperfect voting machines, confusing ballots and fuzzy state law.
How do we know?
Nearly 3,690 ballots rejected as overvotes because of multiple marks revealed clear, unambiguous votes, according to the media analysis. But vague state law kept them from being counted _ and they favored Gore over Bush by a margin of more than 800.
Florida now has new election rules for hand-counting such ballots. Had the new rules been in place last year, Gore probably would have won the election.
In all, the media group reviewed 175,010 ballots that were tossed out of that razor-thin Florida election, deemed uncountable by machines. The extraordinary examination of each of those disqualified ballots found:
+ The votes of 24,653 Floridians, for all presidential candidates, could have been counted using the most lenient standards for determining each voter's intent. That represents 14 percent of the 175,010 ballots that were reviewed and exceeds the population of Tarpon Springs.
+ Bush would have won any hand recount that did not count overvotes. He would have won regardless of what statewide standard might have been used to determine voter intent from 61,190 undervotes _ ballots where machines recorded no vote for president. It didn't matter whether chad on punch card ballots was completely off or hanging by one or two corners, or whether there was only a dimple on the chad.
+ While problems with punch card voting machines received most of the attention in the days after the election, optical scan ballots that were tabulated at a central location had a higher rate of error. The state has banned both types of systems.
+ Of the 25 precincts statewide with the most rejected ballots, 21 are predominantly black. All of the worst 25 Florida precincts were more than 50 percent Democratic.
The bottom line from the most comprehensive examination of the uncounted ballots: The lack of a statewide standard to determine what the voter meant to do enabled Bush to emerge from Florida as the president.
Bush claimed a 537-vote victory when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the statewide recount. In a 5-4 opinion, the sharply divided court ruled on Dec. 12 that the lack of a statewide standard for hand counting votes violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
To try to continue a recount, the court's majority said, "would require not only the adoption . . . of adequate statewide standards for determining what is a legal vote, and practicable procedures to implement them, but also orderly judicial review of any disputed matters that might arise."
On Sunday, Bush and Gore declined to renew that debate.
"This is one more inconclusive study that doesn't change anything," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won, and the voters have long sinced moved on."
Gore issued a statement that referred to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and did not comment directly on the analysis.
"As I said on Dec. 13 of last year, we are a nation of laws, and the presidential election of 2000 is over," Gore said. "And of course, right now our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush's efforts to achieve that goal."
Palm Beach distraction
In the first hours after Election Day, Gore's focus on one peculiar phenomenon in one county obscured a much larger problem.
Democrats steered the world's attention to Palm Beach County and its now infamous butterfly ballot. They focused on punch card ballots that contained punches for both Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
Democrats and Buchanan agreed that most of those overvotes were probably meant for Gore, and the media analysis shows 5,352 of those Gore-Buchanan overvotes in Palm Beach. But there was no way to prove what those voters really wanted.
What got lost in that initial furor was the existence of another type of overvote: ballots (usually optical scan) rejected because of extra marks, but where the intention of the voter may be discernible.
Both Gore and Bush lost votes because voters marked the ballot beside their favorite's name and then wrote Bush or Gore in elsewhere, crossed out all other candidates besides the one they wanted, or tried to correct a mistake and then vote again on the same ballot.
Those overvotes were Gore's best hope, but in the wake of the butterfly ballot controversy, the Gore team barely discussed overvotes and its lawyers never argued in court to count them.
"Nobody asked for a contest of the overvotes," Gore lawyer David Boies told the U.S. Supreme Court in the last hearing.
The media analysis shows that among those 3,690 overvotes that could be considered legitimate votes, 6 out of 10 were cast for Gore.
Instead of pursuing overvotes, the Gore team sought manual recounts of undervotes in four counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia counties.
At the time, it sounded like a good idea. Gore already led in those four counties, and he figured to pick up votes at a faster rate than Bush in a hand recount. But Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris refused to certify some of those recounts and wouldn't allow time for all of them to be completed.
Even with a recount of just those four counties, the media analysis shows, Gore still would have lost by 225 votes.
With the four-county strategy blocked by Harris, Gore's lawyers argued for something that had never been done in Florida. They wanted a statewide hand recount of undervotes. On Dec. 8, the Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3 to grant Gore's wish.
For Gore, it was the biggest victory yet and represented his only hope of overtaking Bush.
Bush, however, wanted no recounts. He wanted no debates over whether to count two-corner chad or dimples as votes. He constantly reminded America that he had led at every tally from election night on.
So immediately after the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, Bush's lawyers rushed to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that it would be unconstitutional to recount ballots given that each county would certainly apply its own standards for determining what was a vote and what wasn't.
To recreate how that county-by-county recount might have come out, the St. Petersburg Times and its partners contacted all 67 counties. Members of the canvassing boards in each county indicated which standard they would have used to determine voter intent.
The media consortium then hired a not-for-profit organization, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. That organization, which has no political affiliation, sent teams into Florida to review each of the ballots that did not register a vote in the presidential contest, or that registered more than one vote.
Three NORC representatives, called coders, looked at each of 61,190 undervoted ballots recovered in the counties. Each of the 113,820 ballots that were considered overvotes were reviewed by one coder.
Under the conditions set by the Florida Supreme Court, Bush began Dec. 9, the day of the recount, 195 votes ahead of Gore. The state's highest court had reduced the Republican's state-certified 537-vote advantage by adding in the results of completed recounts in Palm Beach County and in 139 precincts in Miami-Dade.
Based on the NORC review, Gore never would have gotten closer to Bush than those 195 votes.
If the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the frantic counting under way that remarkable Saturday, Bush would have increased his lead to 493 votes, the media analysis shows.
While Gore would have gained 3,010 votes under the recount standards that likely would have been used by the individual counties, Bush would have gained 3,308 votes.
Republican-rich Collier and Duval counties would have been gold mines for Bush. He would have added 158 net votes to his advantage in Collier and another 261 net votes to his lead in Duval. Miami-Dade, one of the four counties Gore first focused on for a recount, would have produced a net gain of 43 votes for Bush.
Gore's best net gain would have been 151 votes in Lake County, where the canvassing board intended to count overvotes as well as undervotes.
Certainly Bush and the Supreme Court were right: There was no statewide standard for judging whether a rejected ballot contained a legitimate vote.
And yet if Bush had allowed the recounts to finish that day he would have remained ahead and Gore would have conceded. Months of questions about his legitimacy as president would have been silenced.
And yet if a statewide standard had been developed in time to decide the 2000 election, it likely would have helped Gore. But Gore's lawyers never pressed to establish one.
Before county canvassing boards, the Gore team pushed for the most lenient, vague standards possible for counting votes. In court hearings, the Democrat's lawyers failed to give straight answers to even sympathetic judges about what Gore would accept as a statewide standard.
"The standard is whether or not the intent of the voter is reflected by the ballot," Boies told the U.S. Supreme Court in the final hearing.
That vagueness, and the lack of a state law articulating what should happen, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
Using a statewide standard for counting undervotes that included a review of overvotes, Gore always comes out on top, the media analysis showed:
+ With overvotes and looking at only cleanly punched holes in punch card ballots, Gore defeats Bush by 115 votes.
+ With overvotes and if the punch card standard was relaxed to count votes with one corner of the chad dangling, Gore defeats Bush by 60 votes.
+ With overvotes and punch chards with chads hanging by two corners, Gore defeats Bush by 105 votes.
+ With overvotes and the most lenient standard of counting dimples alone as votes on punch card ballots, Gore defeats Bush by 107 votes.
But Bush wins every time when any statewide standard for counting undervotes is used and overvotes are not considered.
Ultimately, Florida's presidential election underscored what the sharpest political observers have always known. Despite the mantra of "count every vote," the country's election systems cannot meet that goal.
More than 5.9-million Floridians voted for president in November 2000. By any measure, the difference separating Bush and Gore was no more than a few hundred votes either way.
"The 2000 election represented an unusual circumstance when the margin of error exceeded the margin of victory," Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio said.
A year after the world focused on Florida's inability to decide an election, the state can take comfort on two fronts.
Looking ahead, Florida has become a national leader in election reform. Next year there will be new voting machines, voter education efforts and rules for defining voter intent and running recounts.
Looking back, scholarly reviews show that Florida wasn't the worst state when it came to spoiling ballots. Illinois, Wyoming, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina had higher voter error rates than Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
Only Florida's election was close enough for the errors to matter.
Certified margin: Bush by 537 votes
Statewide recount margin: Bush by 493
Margin with overvotes: Gore by 107 votes.